Why you should care
Because if you can make the teeming billions dance, you’re one powerful impresario.
The scene is pure luxury: White women in corset-tight dresses sip Champagne and pet an angry, expensive-looking cat with gloved hands; the ceilings are positively baroque and the walls adorned with Grecian statues. Zoom in, then cut to Bollywood starlet Kareena Kapoor, who dips a bar of Magnum ice cream into chocolate and peers seductively out at the audience.
“Try a little more rhythmic, while also keeping it natural,” says Mikey McCleary, pausing the commercial on his monitor. He fiddles with a few notes on the keyboard. The singer behind him in the recording studio asks, “A mix of long and staccato?” They try again. The singer is playing with what McCleary calls “goblins” in her voice: throaty, sassy, deep. This will be Magnum’s first-ever commercial in India, and McCleary is the man putting the music to the grand debut — with some pressure, given that the ice cream brand’s entry into the U.S. market involved a collaboration with celebrity fashion designer Zac Posen.
But writing the music and lyrics for luxury is business as usual for the Indian-born McCleary, who is what locals would call a gora (a white dude) and what industry watchers call a dominant force in composing. He’s responsible for creating much of the soundtrack to the average Indian’s life — he produces, composes and authors lyrics for advertisers like Magnum, Coca-Cola and Vodafone as well as for some of multibillion-dollar Bollywood’s biggest box-office hits and indie films too (tearjerker Margarita, With a Straw and thriller Shaitan, to name just two). Lately, McCleary has also found hipster acclaim by remixing classic Bollywood tunes for a newer, jazzier, sultrier age under the nom de stage “the Bartender.”
Here in his heavily air-conditioned studio on a shady street in Mumbai’s hip Bandra neighborhood, the 46-year-old McCleary is surrounded by all the artifacts of his influence. On the waiting-room walls are the covers of his long-gone vintage vinyl — David Bowie and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sit above old-school Hindi film posters of flicks like Sholay. McCleary’s MO is much like Bollywood’s masala recipe: Mix a bunch of shit up and watch it fuse. He’s far less specialized than most composers in the West have to be, and counts Debussy, Joni Mitchell and American soul among his influences. McCleary’s manner is cosmopolitan, encouraging young Indian singers to follow their own global influences instead of shying away from them, says playback singer Shalmali Kholgade, who sings in Bartender. “He said to me once, ‘What would it be like if Amy Winehouse sang a Hindi song?’” she recounts. “I was just like — wow.”
Born to a Kiwi pastor father and a mother whom said dad met, fell for and proposed to two weeks after seeing her perform a piano concert, McCleary himself picked up his first instrument — drums — at age 13, before moving to guitar and piano. He had been composing only a few years when he applied to composition school at the University of Auckland. After two years of grabbing the music diploma, though, he chose to tour instead of continuing schooling. Then came the obligatory cool-guy bumming around the world for six months, which ended in him “door-knocking” for a job. He landed one, at famed Trident Studios (“second only to Abbey Road” in terms of “hallowed ground,” McCleary says), where “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Hey Jude” were recorded.
India was calling, though, and had been for some time, despite the fact that McCleary hadn’t lived on the subcontinent since before his teenage years. What spurred it along: One day, now-famous star Lucky Ali showed up at McCleary’s London studio, knocked on his door and, in McCleary’s telling, announced: “Hello, I’m your new brother-in-law.” McCleary’s “very impulsive” sister had gone traveling through India and married the then-unknown singer. McCleary and Lucky Ali put together a few songs that exploded, and soon after McCleary found himself in Mumbai. (He’s now married to novelist and occasional indie actress Diksha Basu, an OZY contributor.) The first jobs soon followed: composing music for a Lakmé makeup commercial with a “’70s soul vibe” and producing for Nautanki Saala, his first full film.
At each mention of song or commercial, McCleary, sporting jeans, a blue T-shirt and a well-placed tattoo peeking out from under one sleeve, pulls up the relevant YouTube clip. He shows off a few clips from a just-released album of songs he originally composed for TV commercials; he directed them, and shot them in endearingly hipster-style on only one camera. They’re lovely, and yet they display just how much he and others with similar passions may have to keep pulling double- and triple-duty in advertising and blockbusters — the indie market is “a very, very small piece of the market,” says ethnomusicologist and Hindi film music expert Gregory Booth of the University of Auckland. “Right now, in India, nobody knows how anybody’s making money out of music.”
But there’s power in the mainstream, as any good consumer of Mad Men knows — especially those advertisements. And McCleary’s are about as far from Don Draper’s Bye Bye Birdie remakes as you can get. As I walk back out into the Mumbai heat, McCleary’s lyrics in that singer’s throaty voice are still stuck in my head: I could be wrong / but I think something’s going on / a little magic in the atmosphere. And if it sticks, that’s a job well done.